Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Will Saletan on "Fetal Pain" Abortion Bans, and a Response

Slate: Fetal Fact Check, by William Saletan:

The doctors cited by pro-lifers say their fetal pain research doesn’t support abortion bans

In much of this country, over the last three years, pro-lifers have banned abortions 20 weeks after fertilization. They’ve justified these bans by asserting—contrary to the most authoritativestudies—that fetuses at this stage of development can feel pain. Their assertions, in turn, are based on research by several doctors. But the doctors don’t buy the pro-lifers’ conclusions. They say their research doesn’t support the bans. . . .


Here's what William Saletan gets right in this column:  The science supporting claims that human fetuses can perceive pain at 20 weeks after fertilization is weak.  Here's where he goes on irrelevant tangents:

(1) Dr. Kanwaljeet J. S.  Anand, apparently the only known researcher who believes fetuses can feel pain at this stage, also believes "that 'fetal pain does not have much relevance for abortion, since most abortions are performed before the fetus is capable of experiencing pain.'"  Who cares?  If fetal pain marks the (moral) point at which abortion should be banned, why does it matter how few abortions are implicated?  Any abortion after that stage, proponents would argue, is immoral and should be banned.

(2)  Dr. Anand believes that his research does not support post-20-week abortion bans.  (Anand says that pain could be averted through anesthesia or causing a quick fetal demise before beginning the abortion procedure.)  Again, so what?  This point seems to misapprehend how anti-choice activists are using Anand's research.  They claim that the ability to perceive pain marks a moral threshold of human development sufficiently significant that abortion should not be permitted after this point.  That might be an important moral claim meriting a response (if not necessarily agreement), if the science backed up their assertions.   But while Anand believes fetuses can perceive pain at 20 weeks post-fertilization, he is contradicted by numerous other experts who conclude otherwise.  The best evidence suggests that a human fetus's ability to perceive pain does not occur before fetal viability, after which states can already ban abortions under Roe v. Wade.

(3) There is a "gap" between the claim that fetuses feel pain and the claim that abortions should be banned, since pain could be addressed in ways other than banning abortion.  While this is absolutely true, it fails to take the anti-choice argument seriously.  As explained above, anti-choice activists obviously do not believe that abortion is morally acceptable so long as fetuses don't feel pain.  They are asserting that fetal pain is a critical marker of human development: once a fetus can feel pain, it has reached the stage where it is morally unacceptable to kill it.  Saletan describes the "gap" between (doubtful) assertions of fetal pain and banning abortion as a "sleight of hand."  But he overlooks the real deception.  Anti-choice activists will not be content with banning abortions at 20 weeks.  For these activists, pain perception is not in fact the definitive moral milestone that they claim it is.  Their ultimate goal is to ban all abortions from the moment of fertilization, when the pre-embryo can scarcely be seen with the naked eye.  The question of fetal pain is thus totally irrelevant to their moral claims.  They are simply trying to get the public to move one smallish step with them toward their ultimate goal, without reminding the public of what that goal really is.


Abortion Bans, Fetal Rights, In the Media | Permalink

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